b. Oct. 16, 1888, New York, N.Y., U.S. d.
Nov. 27, 1953, Boston, Mass. in full EUGENE GLADSTONE O'NEILL foremost
American dramatist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.
His masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night (produced posthumously
1956), is at the apex of a long string of great plays, including Beyond
the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), Ah!
Wilderness (1933), and The Iceman Cometh (1946).
O'Neill was born into the theatre. His father, James O'Neill, was a
successful touring actor in the last quarter of the 19th century whose
most famous role was that of the Count of Monte Cristo in a stage
adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas père novel. His mother, Ella,
accompanied her husband back and forth across the country, settling down
only briefly for the birth of her first son, James, Jr., and of Eugene.
Eugene, who was born in a hotel, spent his early childhood in hotel
rooms, on trains, and backstage. Although he later deplored the
nightmare insecurity of his early years and blamed his father for the
difficult, rough-and-tumble life the family led--a life that resulted in
his mother's drug addiction--Eugene had the theatre in his blood. He was
also, as a child, steeped in the peasant Irish Catholicism of his father
and the more genteel, mystical piety of his mother, two influences,
often in dramatic conflict, which account for the high sense of drama
and the struggle with God and religion that distinguish O'Neill's plays.
O'Neill was educated at boarding schools--Mt. St. Vincent in the
Bronx and Betts Academy in Stamford, Conn. His summers were spent at the
family's only permanent home, a modest house overlooking the Thames
River in New London, Conn. He attended Princeton University for one year
(1906-07), after which he left school to begin what he later regarded as
his real education in "life experience." The next six years
very nearly ended his life. He shipped to sea, lived a derelict's
existence on the waterfronts of Buenos Aires, Liverpool, and New York
City, submerged himself in alcohol, and attempted suicide. Recovering
briefly at the age of 24, he held a job for a few months as a reporter
and contributor to the poetry column of the New London Telegraph but
soon came down with tuberculosis. Confined to the Gaylord Farm
Sanitarium in Wallingford, Conn., for six months (1912-13), he
confronted himself soberly and nakedly for the first time and seized the
chance for what he later called his "rebirth." He began to
Entry into theatre
O'Neill's first efforts were awkward melodramas, but they were about
people and subjects--prostitutes, derelicts, lonely sailors, God's
injustice to man--that had, up to that time, been in the province of
serious novels and were not considered fit subjects for presentation on
the American stage. A theatre critic persuaded his father to send him to
Harvard to study with George Pierce Baker in his famous playwriting
course. Although what O'Neill produced during that year (1914-15) owed
little to Baker's academic instruction, the chance to work steadily at
writing set him firmly on his chosen path.
O'Neill's first appearance as a playwright came in the summer of
1916, in the quiet fishing village of Provincetown, Mass., where a group
of young writers and painters had launched an experimental theatre. In
their tiny, ramshackle playhouse on a wharf, they produced his one-act
sea play Bound East for Cardiff. The talent inherent in the play was
immediately evident to the group, which that fall formed the
Playwrights' Theater in Greenwich Village. Their first bill, on Nov. 3,
1916, included Bound East for Cardiff--O'Neill's New York debut.
Although he was only one of several writers whose plays were produced by
the Playwrights' Theater, his contribution within the next few years
made the group's reputation. Between 1916 and 1920, the group produced
all of O'Neill's one-act sea plays, along with a number of his lesser
efforts. By the time his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was
produced on Broadway, Feb. 2, 1920, at the Morosco Theater, the young
playwright already had a small reputation.
Beyond the Horizon impressed the critics with its tragic realism, won
for O'Neill the first of four Pulitzer prizes in drama--others were for
Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, and Long Day's Journey into Night--and
brought him to the attention of a wider theatre public. For the next 20
years his reputation grew steadily, both in the United States and
abroad; after Shakespeare and Shaw, O'Neill became the most widely
translated and produced dramatist.
Period of the major works
O'Neill's capacity for and commitment to work were staggering.
Between 1920 and 1943 he completed 20 long plays--several of them double
and triple length--and a number of shorter ones. He wrote and rewrote
many of his manuscripts half a dozen times before he was satisfied, and
he filled shelves of notebooks with research notes, outlines, play
ideas, and other memoranda. His most-distinguished short plays include
the four early sea plays, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, The Long
Voyage Home, and The Moon of the Caribbees, which were written between
1913 and 1917 and produced in 1924 under the overall title S.S.
Glencairn; The Emperor Jones (about the disintegration of a Pullman
porter turned tropical-island dictator); and The Hairy Ape (about the
disintegration of a displaced steamship coal stoker).
O'Neill's plays were written from an intensely personal point of
view, deriving directly from the scarring effects of his family's tragic
relationships--his mother and father, who loved and tormented each
other; his older brother, who loved and corrupted him and died of
alcoholism in middle age; and O'Neill himself, caught and torn between
love for and rage at all three.
Among his most-celebrated long plays is Anna Christie, perhaps the
classic American example of the ancient "harlot with a heart of
gold" theme; it became an instant popular success. O'Neill's
serious, almost solemn treatment of the struggle of a poor
Swedish-American girl to live down her early, enforced life of
prostitution and to find happiness with a likable but unimaginative
young sailor is his least-complicated tragedy. He himself disliked it
from the moment he finished it, for, in his words, it had been "too
The first full-length play in which O'Neill successfully evoked the
starkness and inevitability of Greek tragedy that he felt in his own
life was Desire Under the Elms. Drawing on Greek themes of incest,
infanticide, and fateful retribution, he framed his story in the context
of his own family's conflicts. This story of a lustful father, a weak
son, and an adulterous wife who murders her infant son was told with a
fine disregard for the conventions of the contemporary Broadway theatre.
Because of the sparseness of its style, its avoidance of melodrama, and
its total honesty of emotion, the play was acclaimed immediately as a
powerful tragedy and has continued to rank among the great American
plays of the 20th century.
In The Great God Brown, O'Neill dealt with a major theme that he
expressed more effectively in later plays--the conflict between idealism
and materialism. Although the play was too metaphysically intricate to
be staged successfully in 1926, it was significant for its symbolic use
of masks and for the experimentation with expressionistic dialogue and
action--devices that since have become commonly accepted both on the
stage and in motion pictures. In spite of its confusing structure, the
play is rich in symbolism and poetry, as well as in daring technique,
and it became a forerunner of avant-garde movements in American theatre.
O'Neill's innovative writing continued with Strange Interlude. This
play was revolutionary in style and length: when first produced, it
opened in late afternoon, broke for a dinner intermission, and ended at
the conventional hour. Techniques new to the modern theatre included
spoken asides or soliloquies to express the characters' hidden thoughts.
The play is the saga of Everywoman, who ritualistically acts out her
roles as daughter, wife, mistress, mother, and platonic friend. Although
it was innovative and startling in 1928, its obvious Freudian overtones
have rapidly dated the work.
One of O'Neill's enduring masterpieces, Mourning Becomes Electra,
represents the playwright's most complete use of Greek forms, themes,
and characters. Based on the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus, it was
itself three plays in one. To give the story contemporary credibility,
O'Neill set the play in the New England of the Civil War period, yet he
retained the forms and the conflicts of the Greek characters: the heroic
leader returning from war; his adulterous wife, who murders him; his
jealous, repressed daughter, who avenges him through the murder of her
mother; and his weak, incestuous son, who is goaded by his sister first
to matricide and then to suicide.
Following a long succession of tragic visions, O'Neill's only comedy,
Ah, Wilderness!, appeared on Broadway in 1933. Written in a
lighthearted, nostalgic mood, the work was inspired in part by the
playwright's mischievous desire to demonstrate that he could portray the
comic as well as the tragic side of life. Significantly, the play is set
in the same place and period, a small New England town in the early
1900s, as his later tragic masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night.
Dealing with the growing pains of a sensitive, adolescent boy, Ah,
Wilderness! was characterized by O'Neill as "the other side of the
coin," meaning that it represented his fantasy of what his own
youth might have been, rather than what he believed it to have been (as
dramatized later in Long Day's Journey into Night).
The Iceman Cometh, the most complex and perhaps the finest of the
O'Neill tragedies, followed in 1939, although it did not appear on
Broadway until 1946. Laced with subtle religious symbolism, the play is
a study of man's need to cling to his hope for a better life, even if he
must delude himself to do so.
Even in his last writings, O'Neill's youth continued to absorb his
attention. The posthumous production of Long Day's Journey into Night
brought to light an agonizingly autobiographical play, one of O'Neill's
greatest. It is straightforward in style but shattering in its depiction
of the agonized relations between father, mother, and two sons. Spanning
one day in the life of a family, the play strips away layer after layer
from each of the four central figures, revealing the mother as a
defeated drug addict, the father as a man frustrated in his career and
failed as a husband and father, the older son as a bitter alcoholic, and
the younger son as a tubercular, disillusioned youth with only the
slenderest chance for physical and spiritual survival.
O'Neill's tragic view of life was perpetuated in his relationships
with the three women he married--two of whom he divorced--and with his
three children. His elder son, Eugene O'Neill, Jr. (by his first wife,
Kathleen Jenkins), committed suicide at 40, while his younger son, Shane
(by his second wife, Agnes Boulton), drifted into a life of emotional
instability. His daughter, Oona (also by Agnes Boulton), was cut out of
his life when, at 18, she infuriated him by marrying Charlie Chaplin,
who was O'Neill's age.
Until some years after his death in 1953, O'Neill, although respected
in the United States, was more highly regarded abroad. Sweden, in
particular, always held him in high esteem, partly because of his
publicly acknowledged debt to the influence of the Swedish playwright
August Strindberg, whose tragic themes often echo in O'Neill's plays. In
1936 the Swedish Academy gave O'Neill the Nobel Prize for Literature,
the first time the award had been conferred on an American playwright.
O'Neill's most ambitious project for the theatre was one that he
never completed. In the late 1930s he conceived of a cycle of 11 plays,
to be performed on 11 consecutive nights, tracing the lives of an
American family from the early 1800s to modern times. He wrote scenarios
and outlines for several of the plays and drafts of others but completed
only one in the cycle--A Touch of the Poet--before a crippling illness
ended his ability to hold a pencil. An unfinished rough draft of another
of the cycle plays, More Stately Mansions, was published in 1964 and
produced three years later on Broadway, in spite of written instructions
left by O'Neill that the incomplete manuscript be destroyed after his
O'Neill's final years were spent in grim frustration. Unable to work,
he longed for his death and sat waiting for it in a Boston hotel, seeing
no one except his doctor, a nurse, and his third wife, Carlotta
Monterey. O'Neill died as broken and tragic a figure as any he had
created for the stage.
O'Neill was the first American dramatist to regard the stage as a
literary medium and the only American playwright ever to receive the
Nobel Prize for Literature. Through his efforts, the American theatre
grew up during the 1920s, developing into a cultural medium that could
take its place with the best in American fiction, painting, and music.
Until his Beyond the Horizon was produced, in 1920, Broadway theatrical
fare, apart from musicals and an occasional European import of quality,
had consisted largely of contrived melodrama and farce. O'Neill saw the
theatre as a valid forum for the presentation of serious ideas. Imbued
with the tragic sense of life, he aimed for a contemporary drama that
had its roots in the most powerful of ancient Greek tragedies--a drama
that could rise to the emotional heights of Shakespeare. For more than
20 years, both with such masterpieces as Desire Under the Elms, Mourning
Becomes Electra, and The Iceman Cometh and by his inspiration to other
serious dramatists, O'Neill set the pace for the blossoming of the
Broadway theatre. (B.Ge.) (A.Ge.)
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